Does Sociology Explain Religion?

Does sociology explain religion such that we really don’t need to look anywhere else to explain its existence? In other words do we need crafty philosophical or theological explanations or can it all be explained away without it actually needing to be true?

Sociologists had begun to feel rather confident about their understanding of religion, write Martin Riesebrodt and Mary Ellen Konieczny in their chapter “Sociology of Religion” in The Routledge Companion to the Study of the Religion (ed. John T Hinnels). Sociologists thought that the present age was a time of secularization, that while people would carry on with private religious beliefs in their own personal lives, it would not be so obvious in the public world – eventually disappearing from public life altogether. Perhaps religious values might continue in society but for humanistic reasons rather than religious ones – so we would still feel strongly about love and justice and so on but not because of religious beliefs, but because they make sense ethically or politically.

Martin Riesebrodt and Mary Ellen Konieczny write that virtually no-one thought religion would be back and in such a powerful form. They were taken by surprise. The demise of religion has not arrived on schedule – far from it. Throughout the world, in America, Africa, Asia and eastern Europe relgion is far more important than the sociologists expected and this has meant sociologists have had to change. They had expected religion to be transformed by the modern world, and some felt this meant diminished.

Classical sociologists of religion such as Marx and Durkheim have provided differing explanations and justifications of this diminishing of religion. According to Marx religion provided a reason for people not to realise that they were enslaved by the social order to drive the process of capitalism and once the people had their revolution and overturned the social order, religion could be dispensed with. For Marx the demise of religion would come when people were emancipated. For Durkheim religion collected together the social order and justified the rules of behaviour by being the thing that everyone shared, meaning values and beliefs were all shared too. The existence of other religions and religious diversity would mean a new social glue would be needed, a civil religion which would still bind people together around the same set of values, even though they had many different religious beliefs. For Durkheim religion was less important that civil religion in integrating everyone into society now we all lived in much more diverse groupings.

Peter Berger is a more recent sociologist who charted the demise of religion in the modern world. He argues that the power of religion to change the world would diminish because societies were becoming much more plural, and religious institutions more diverse and different. religionis strongest when it is in a position of monopoly – when it is the only show in town. If there is only one way of explaining things then people are more likely to support it. If there are alternatives then choice breeds not only movement from one religion to another, but a realisation that perhaps none of them quite get it right, and perhaps none of them will ever get it right. Religion needs strong social relationships between the believers and the structures of religion. In time the strength and power of religious institutions would diminish, become less pervasive, less important in influencing how people lived and thought. Frankly people would have more choice about which religious institution they connected with, and it seemed to Berger as though people were connecting less with religious institutions at all.

These sociological accounts of religion seem on the face of it to do away with any need for complex philosophical or theological explanations of religion – we don’t need them! We can explain religion in human terms as part of human life. No magic tricks required! Except that religion has resurged. Martin Riesebrodt and Mary Ellen Konieczny chart this resurgence in the US with new religious movements in California, a strong return of more conservative religious forces such as Catholic and Protestant Christianity and Islam has returned to be a force in public political life throughout the world. The view that it would come to an end with a whimper has simply not happened and now sociologists are having to think again about how they think about and even analyse religion.

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